Entering Saturday, J.J. McCarthy’s season had followed the same, Hollywood-style script. The wunderkind sophomore quarterback won a tense battle for QB1, unseating senior incumbent Cade McNamara. Then, in two starts — against Hawaii and UConn — McCarthy dazzled, lighting up the scoreboard and stirring the imagination.
Saturday, McCarthy deviated from the script.
Michigan’s first true test of the season doubled as the first true test of McCarthy’s reign, too. Maryland’s pass defense is pedestrian, ranking 10th in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game. But the Terrapins marked a step-up in competition, boasting bona fide talent.
McCarthy’s final line — 18-of-26 for 220 passing yards and two touchdowns, along with two fumbles — is striking. In the end, he helped usher the Wolverines to victory. But his performance featured a blend of good and bad, a mix of perfection and head-scratching moments.
When asked to assess his play, McCarthy smiled, per usual. He also let out a long sigh.
“It definitely wasn’t my best performance,” McCarthy said. “I want some things back that happened out there. But I was happy with the way we were able to move the ball when at times we needed to respond. … I was just happy with the way we responded.”
McCarthy responded well, too. Each gaffe seemed to be met with a play meant for a highlight reel.
McCarthy opened the fourth quarter with a beautiful 20-yard touchdown strike to junior receiver Roman Wilson, putting Michigan up 24-13. He began the ensuing drive by short-arming a pass to sophomore receiver Andrel Anthony. Two plays later, he lofted a ball down the sideline, hitting graduate receiver Ronnie Bell in stride for a 49-yard gain. And, three plays after that, he tried to force a pass to Bell in the front corner of the endzone, nearly throwing an interception. Michigan settled for a field goal.
So it goes.
“I think he did a lot of great things,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “With the game on the line, throws to Roman, to Ronnie Bell, just to name a couple. Thought he worked the ball to the tight ends. … He just kinda settled into playing good fundamental football.”
This is all a process for McCarthy; there are lessons to be learned on the fly. Harbaugh knows that. Crucibles like Saturday’s game, a surprisingly close contest against the Terrapins, allow for McCarthy to develop.
There are other opportunities to learn, too.
Saturday, McCarthy held court with Charles Woodson, in town as a part of FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff coverage. The pair talked, though McCarthy did most of the listening, soaking in Woodson’s critique and advice.
“The big thing that stood out to me with him was just to use my legs more,” Mccarthy said. “I mean, God gave me them for a reason. And when I’m sitting back there and I’m not seeing anything open, just run. That’s what I took wholeheartedly, and that’s something that I really need to do.”
McCarthy’s mobility helped separate himself from McNamara, who lacks the same agility and speed. But there are spots to deploy those traits, and McCarthy needs to pick and choose. That’s what he’s still learning. McCarthy’s performance Saturday featured the full spectrum of decision-making, both brilliant and erratic.
In the second quarter, with Michigan facing a third and seven, McCarthy eluded a furious rush of Maryland defenders, eventually scampering for the first down. The crowd roared in delight.
Five plays later, on second and ten, McCarthy tried to perform similar heroics. Instead, he wound up taking a 15-yard sack and fumbling the football — his second fumble of the day . Though the Wolverines recovered the football both times, the yardage lost would prove costly: Fifth-year kicker Jake Moody shanked the 43-yard field goal try.
“That’s one of those plays where I want back, where I just gotta get rid of the ball, make sure I don’t get myself in a situation like that,” McCarthy said. “… That’s two plays I really want back.”
McCarthy reacted similarly to his errant throws; on four separate occasions, he overthrew an open receiver, missing would-be touchdowns that ultimately allowed Maryland to stay in the game.
“I take full responsibility for all of those throws that I missed on them,” McCarthy said. “My arm was feeling 110% today, and it’s been a while since it’s felt like that. So just being able to go through the practices this week and being able to adjust and dial it back a little bit more, it’s gonna be huge.”
Continuing to grow is the key for McCarthy. He is, after all, young and inexperienced — albeit extremely talented. For all of his exploits, there are going to be hiccups, too.
And on Saturday, that was on full display.